Religion in Harry Potter: Do J. K. Rowling's Novels Promote Religion or Undermine It?
Armstrong, Ari, Skeptic (Altadena, CA)
GIVEN THE RUNAWAY POPULARITY of J. K. Rowling's novels and the related films, readers of the works, parents of readers, and those interested in cultural trends may wonder about the religious themes of the stories. Do the novels promote sorcery, as some conservative Christians allege? Do they instead endorse Christian notions of immortality, recapitulate the story of Christ's sacrificial love, and promote religious faith? Or is it a mistake to read any religious theme into these fantasy stories?
Widely reported criticisms allege that Rowling's novels undermine Christianity and promote occultism. A representative of Focus on the Family acknowledged that the novels offer "valuable lessons about love and courage and the ultimate victory of good over evil"; however, "the positive messages are packaged in a medium--witchcraft--that is directly denounced in scripture." (1) Other Protestant critics have been even less forgiving; a woman in the documentary film Jesus Camp said, "Had it been in the Old Testament, Harry Potter would have been put to death." (2) While some Catholic leaders have praised the novels' moral themes, others have castigated the books. Before he became Pope, Joseph Ratzinger said the books threaten to "corrupt the Christian faith," while another Catholic commentator said the novels promote the occult and Gnostic-like (heretical) "secret knowledge." (3)
Rowling called the claims that her works promote witchcraft or the occult absurd. (4) Attorney and political writer Dave Kopel likens Rowling to C. S. Lewis, an author revered by many Christians even though his fantasy novels also contain magic. (5)
Rowling's novels, while brimming with magic, clearly separate the fantasy world from the real one. The ability to do magic is akin to a genetic trait; some people are born with it, some are not. Those born without magic, called Muggles, can never cast spells or employ a wand. In these stories, magical and nonmagical worlds coexist, but they remain separated by a wizard segregation law. (6) More important, Rowling distinguishes the magic of her wizard world from a deeper sort of "magic" available to us all. Consider the comments of Harry's mentor Dumbledore about the villain Voldemort, an expert in dark magic: "Of house-elves and children's tales, of love, loyalty, and innocence, Voldemort knows and understands nothing.... That they all have a power beyond his own, a power beyond the reach of any magic, is a truth he has never grasped." (7) It is a truth that apparently eludes some of Rowling's critics as well.
Far from undermining Christianity, Rowling's novels promote important Christian themes, starting with immortality. In a 2007 interview Rowling said she believes in Christianity and attends a Protestant church. (8) While she struggles with the idea of immortality, she said, "I do believe in life after death." (9)
The heroes of Rowling's novels explicitly endorse a belief in immortality. For example, Hermione, Harry's bookish friend, explains to another friend, "Look, if I picked up a sword right now ... and ran you through with it, I wouldn't damage your soul at all.... Whatever happens to your body, your soul will survive, untouched." She also says that "defeating death" in the positive sense means "living after death" as opposed to attempting earthly immortality as Voldemort does. Significantly, she says this at the grave of Harry's parents on Christmas Eve, and she magically creates "a wreath of Christmas roses" to place on the grave. (10)
A belief in the immortal soul is not unique to Christianity--Plato also maintained such a belief--but it does presume supernaturalism. Thus, while the endorsement of immortality in Rowling's novels does not by itself make the novels distinctly Christian, it does promote a religious belief compatible with Christianity.
We may ask, though, how central a role does immortality play in the themes of the novels? …